“Statistically, every 94 minutes something or someone is getting hit by a train in the United States,” says David Rangel, deputy director of Modoc Railroad, a training school for future train engineers. Now, most of those incidents don’t involve people—Rangel’s statistic also includes the occasional abandoned shopping cart, wayward livestock, and other objects that somehow find their way onto the tracks. But, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), 784 people were killed in train-related accidents in 2013, the highest total in the last four years.
That accident rate comes down to a combination of factors, each increasing the likelihood of disasters. “Railcars are incredibly quiet,” Rangel says. “[Tracks] are designed to achieve the lowest possible coefficient of friction…At age 62, I could push a train car down a track.” Unlike a steam engine that would hammer the rails (a main reason why they were retired), modern railcars glide with low friction, and crushed rock underneath the tracks helps diminish impact. “You won’t hear it or feel it,” Rangel says.
The Doppler Effect, which explains how sound changes pitch based on an observer’s location relative to the sound’s origin (the reason sirens sound different as they approach you), plays a role. However, since they were in front of the train, where the pitch would be higher, they’d be more likely to hear the siren and doesn’t explain why they didn’t hear the train coming. Unsurprisingly, some train-collision victims often were wearing headphones or earbuds at the time. (These two were not wearing headphones.)
Terrain can also add to the danger. If a locomotive passes through a corridor lined with trees, those trees act like sound baffles in a recording studio, Rangel says, suppressing the noise. The average railcar traveling at 50 mph measures in decibels between at “loud voice” and a “shout,” according to the FRA. The horn itself, though, can be even louder than sirens on an ambulance.
When you think about it, it is surprising how open train tracks are to the general public. The average city or suburban dweller could probably get to a railroad line easily and walk around. This also includes a large number of at-grade crossings, a particular problem in the Chicago region with lots of freight traffic and lots of people. But, the goal of railroad lines is not to minimize accidents but rather to transport goods and people as efficiently as possible.